Burmese Train Adventures

Our second day in Yangon we decided to check out the Circle Train, which is a super slow train that trundles around Yangon in a big circle all day. A lot of people had recommended it to us as a good way to see typical Burmese life, so we headed to the train station after a delicious breakfast of fried rice.

The train station is kind of an adventure in itself, because all the signs and timetables look like this:

Train timetables at the Yangon train station.
Train timetables at the Yangon train station.

However they also have this comforting sign:

Pretty much the only English sign in the station.
Pretty much the only English sign in the station.

I had actually attained sort of a tentative grasp of Burmese numerals by this point, but everything else was still gibberish so we just headed to the window. Fortunately the train station employees also have a tentative grasp of English, so we were able to buy tickets for the night train to Bagan as well as find the platform for the Circle Train. At the platform another station attendant was all like “Ah, confused foreigners!”, and told us to sit down by his ticket window and he would come show us to the right train when it showed up.

Circle train map.
Circle train map.

Like I think most Burmese trains are, it was a bit late but we got on with no problems thanks to the helpful station attendant. The train goes pretty slow and takes about 3 hours to complete the circle of 39 stops, so we sat back and relaxed, watching people get on and off, chitty chat and go about their day. The train goes by a couple of fun markets selling all sorts of produce. There was also a super chatty man on board who seemed to be selling massages with some kind of Tiger Balm-like lotion.

Market at a station.
Market at a station.

We got off one stop early to check out Bogyoke Aung San Market, where I bought a bunch of clothes in a fit of spontaneous shopping. Then we headed to 999 Shan Noodles for lunch. 999 Shan Noodles is one of those places that has gotten into the TripAdvisor loop of excellence, wherein they have got enough good reviews that now all the tourists go there and continue giving good reviews. It does make quite delicious noodles though. It’s also funny in that I think they do put all the white people upstairs so that it still looks really local from the street, but then you go inside and it’s ALL TOURISTS on the second floor (that is also where the air conditioning is, so it figures).

~$2.40 CAD of food in Yangon.
~$2.40 CAD of food in Yangon.

After lunch we chilled at the guesthouse for a bit before heading to the train station to catch the night train to Bagan. At the station we walked around trying to decipher the departures board for a bit before another helpful station attendant came over and said to sit and wait, he would take us to the right platform when the train arrived. Which he did, although he also volunteered to carry our bags and then asked for a tip afterwards. At least that is what we think, as the language barrier prevented us from discovering what the 5000 kyat each was for. Chris thought it might be some kind of baggage fee as they kept miming putting the bags on the train, but who knows, perhaps we were scammed.

The train was literally the oldest train I’ve ever seen. This has pros and cons, the pros being that old = no safety standards, so the windows open all the way and you can pretty much hang your whole body outside. The cons being everything is hilariously rickety, and the “lavatory” is literally a hole onto the tracks. The train was also crazy bouncy, which is a pro for the fun factor, but a con in terms of getting any sleep.

On board!
On board!

Since we were 2 of 6 tourists on the train, we had a 4 berth sleeper car to ourselves. It was self-contained, so we couldn’t visit the rest of the train, but also no one could disturb us. The train took 19 hours to get to Bagan, so it’s a good thing we brought lots of snacks. Every once in awhile when we passed through a town, people tried to sell us beer and snacks, but as the quality/cleanliness was questionable, we passed.

Away we go!
Away we go!

We could have taken a bus and gotten there is much less time, but I don’t think it would have been nearly as much fun. The train goes quite slowly, and you get to watch the sun go down (and then come back up again) over the lovely Burmese countryside.

Houses along the tracks.
Houses along the tracks.

It’s dotted with golden stupas and full of farmers tending to their fields with ox-drawn ploughs and herding their goats.

A farmer with his plough.
A farmer with his plough.

The landscape also goes from flat to mountainous, with every type of vegetation from palm trees to cacti. Chris literally took over 800 pictures on the journey, and it was dark for 12 of the 19 hours.

A hilltop stupa.
A hilltop stupa.

The most fun part though was passing through the many tiny villages on the way. As the train goes by it slows down and sometimes stops, and all the people seem to come to the track to watch. The kids yell and wave, the boys wink and blow kisses, and the ladies sell homemade snacks they carry on giant platters balanced atop their heads.

Kids watching the train go by.
Kids watching the train go by.

Sometimes packages are unloaded and people excitedly line up to pass the goods along. Other times children (some tiny monks) run alongside the train while people throw candy out the windows. We did not know of this game and I wanted to throw some of our candy, but Chris said he wanted to eat it (and we forgot we had extra until we found it in our bag later).

Kids chasing the train as people throw candy out the windows.
Kids chasing the train as people throw candy out the windows.

When we made it to Bagan it was 11am and we were excited we had managed to sit in a box together for so long without murdering each another. It’s obvious when you reach the Bagan station as it’s big and fancy, plus as the train pulls into the station people start jumping on, yelling “Welcome to Bagan!”, and of course, offering to drive you to your hotel. After 19 hours on the train we pretty much just took the first ride the approached, and headed into Bagan!

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